Reading Translations

September was National Translation Month and long ago Monique, the local organizer, asked me to read for it. I don’t read much anymore. When I was younger and writing poetry, I read often. After people yelled for a beer in the midst of my poem a few times, I swore off reading in bars. Then someone read a poem he’d written on a roll of toilet paper. It took the entire roll and a really long time. So I swore off open mics. Later, teaching at Denver School of the Arts, I did readings with the kids and didn’t have the energy for anything else.

Since retiring from teaching, I’ve been writing translations with some success and was being asked to read my translations, so I said yes. I didn’t know where the reading was. A bookstore I assumed. It was months away.

The week of the reading arrived, the way such things tiptoe up behind you and scare the stuffing out of you. Monique posted photos of three featured readers, our bios, date and place. I looked at the website. A café, maybe? Not a bookstore? Neither. It was a bar full of rambunctious clientele on a Monday night. The reading was in a room joined to the bar by two wide doorways.

I was reading translations in a bar. “I can do this,” I muttered grimly, blinking to adjust to the dimness. There was a stage, lights, a mic. Maybe it would be O.K. I was doing this for Mónica Lavín, Agustín Cadena and Rafael Courtoisie, contemporary writers whose flash fiction I had translated. For this, they would owe me.

A few people wandered in, obviously participants: they were carrying books. It turned out that besides the translators, four others were reading their favorite writers in translation. Kudos to Monique: nice idea. My old habit of counting the house kicked in. All but three of the ten people in the room were on the program. One of the three was Monique and another the husband of a reader. Still, I was proud of myself. Not for a moment did I consider finding a back door, professing to have a sudden emergency, or exclaiming, “Wait, this is a translation reading?”

There was a Chinese translation of the “To be or not to be” monologue by a Mr. Zhu, being read by Yanmin Huang; translations of a contemporary French poet by Julie Carr; and me. After us, four poets read translated work. Karen Douglass compared two translations of Greek poet George Seferis, which would have been interesting, if I’d been able to hear it.

I’d have liked to hear all of it, but the bar crowd cranked up its volume and during my reading the mic failed. “I heard the first half of your second piece and then zip,” one of the attendees told me. For the rest of the readings—we soldiered on admirably—I cupped my hands behind my ears, leaned forward in my chair, caught every fourth word. It was easier to hear the bar conversation. Tall young dudes in beards and boots, those guys projected.

I’m told the poetry readings there in the spring filled the room and the bar denizens were quiet as church mice. I’m told the sound system worked fine. Credit where due: Monique had done all she could to ensure a good reading, and was dismayed by the situation. Not to worry, Monique. I’m pretty sure it’s my karma—the mic went out while I was reading, didn’t it? Your next event will be fine.

We abandoned the dead mic and stage, huddled together as if we were the temperance committee meeting while the cowboys whooped it up in the saloon. When the cowboys left, the bar quieted for the final reading, and in our corral of chairs, we at last could hear clearly.

It was “One of These Days” from No One Writes to the Colonel and Other Stories, the story about the dentist. García Márquez said it was his best book, but he had to write One Hundred Years of Solitude to get anyone to read it. It was a joy to hear J. S. Bernstein’s fine work again: we were listening to his words, after all.

The great translator Gregory Rabassa got the job of translating One Hundred Years. Someone asked if he had enough Spanish to do that and Rabassa replied that the issue would be whether he had enough English. Ken Greenley read the dentist story and did it well. Thus the evening ended on a satisfying note, with García Márquez’ delicious, economical story so ably told for us by Bernstein. But no one mentioned the translator’s name.


Posted in Humor, Translation | 5 Comments

On Reading of the Closing of the Next to Last Howard Johnson’s

Indian Head Nickel

Indian Head Nickel

As a working class girl, I found waitressing more lucrative than being a department store clerk, which I also tried. You could get your working permit at fourteen, a thing my mother took me to do within days of that birthday. We had little money and I understood I had to start contributing. I worked in downtown stores the next two or three years, back when downtown Vero Beach, Florida was a vibrant place, and not the mostly vacant museum of the past it is now. But I applied at Howard Johnson’s as soon as I was old enough. The real money was in waitressing.

HoJos was on U.S. 1, the main north-south route before there were interstates. U.S. 1 went through town and was dotted with orange juice stands, reptile farms, shops featuring jewelry and lamps made from shells, gas stations (30 cents a gallon), motels and A &W drive-ins, where your root beer came in a heavy, iced glass mug with a foamy head. Howard Johnson’s restaurants were scattered along U.S. 1 from Miami to the New Jersey Turnpike.

I opened at HoJos the summer after high school. Dad got me up in the dark, dropped me off at 5:30. Kitchen crew was already there, the sizzle of bacon greeting me as I walked in. The parking lot spread behind and to the side of the long building with its orange roof and wall of windows. I worked the counter and spotted my morning regulars coming up the sidewalk. Here comes poached eggs and wheat toast. I put the order in, got a setup and coffee on the counter as the gentleman slid onto his stool. Those businessmen who had breakfast at my counter every weekday morning, always ordered the same thing, always sat at the same place, silently reading their newspapers, were a mainstay of my earnings. Some were routinely generous; others left precisely the correct percentage each time. I imagined them leaving home while their wives slept, savoring the hour of quiet before they slid a quarter onto the counter and went to work.

A quarter was a decent tip. Most egg dishes were a dollar or less. Those days tips were change. I came home with jingling pockets, began collecting Indian head/buffalo nickels, managed to fill most of a coin collection holder with them. They’d stopped making them in the late 1930s. They were already scarce. My collection was stolen years later. Remembering it now, I feel again the sting of its loss. I worked hard for those coins and had a particular attachment to the Indian profile that adorned them.

Waitresses were white, kitchen crew black. The breakfast cook already at the grill when I arrived was a small, lean man I thought of as old. Now I suppose he may have been in his 40s. He was a skilled short order cook who cracked eggs two at a time in his hand, never broke a yolk or dropped shell into them, and delivered them exactly as ordered. He did all that with a cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth, the ash lengthening until I was certain it would fall into the over easy I was waiting for, but somehow never did. He flicked it into the glass HoJo ashtray he kept beside the grill just in time.

It didn’t occur to me to question the racial order of things. It was the early 60s and I’d graduated from a segregated high school. The downtown stores I’d worked in had colored and white water fountains. I didn’t truly ponder any of it until I moved away. Moving away often provides perspective.

At lunch I had counter customers, ice cream orders to fill as well as the cash register to run. The ice cream was in round tubs beneath the counter along with basins of syrups, bananas and bright cherries. Dining room waitresses brought me their ice cream orders: floats and shakes I poured into tall glasses, sundaes and scoops of butter crunch or mint chocolate chip in footed metal dishes. I usually worked a 9-hour shift, had ten-minute breaks once or twice, and a 30-minute lunch break. I often had the fried clams, a novelty in my normal diet. I was eighteen and making enough to buy my books for college and occasional groceries for home.

Between each ice cream order I dunked the scoop in the rinse water. My hand was always wet when I dug into the cold tubs. No one wore plastic gloves—did they even exist? The outside of my right index finger, the surface the scoop leaned against, began to crack. A series of short fissures developed along its length over months. After I stopped scooping ice cream, those gashes took a long time to heal. Scars of manual labor, they remained years after my last waitress job, reminders of work I was proud of and never wanted to do again.

Posted in Memoir | 7 Comments

Broken Toes

I’d been trying to see why our motion-activated yard light came on. Turning swiftly in the dark, I forget about the heavy hassock and slam my left foot into it. There’s a cracking noise. Pain washes over me like a wave with an undertow. Unlike a wave, it doesn’t recede, blooms larger forever as I make gasping noises. Phil’s brushing his teeth, from the bathroom shouts, “what, what?” a demand for information I haven’t the breath to answer.

It’d already been an annoying day. After waiting all week, this afternoon while I was at the dentist finding out I had a cavity, three review documents arrived in my email with a phone conference appointment for tomorrow. When I got home from the dentist, UPS still hadn’t come with our important package. Phil arranged to be home all day for it. We skipped our evening gym date, loitered downstairs till after 9, afraid we’d miss the knock if we went upstairs.

Waiting for UPS (or FedX or whoever) is like waiting for Godot, a limbo, a purgatory, a Tibetan bardo, a gray state between life and death, a miserable place in which no matter what else you do, you are primarily, obsessively waiting. You work at your computer with one ear tuned to the front door. You watch the evening news and look up every time a vehicle drives past. It’s a nowhere place, waiting for UPS.

Tracking information doesn’t deserve the name. Yes, live chat confirms at 5 p.m. (you can’t talk to anyone) it’s on the truck and will be delivered today. They lie. At ten p.m., tracking info changes to “scheduled for delivery tomorrow.” No explanation. No apology.

We cancel our breakfast date. Fine. I have those documents to read, issues to articulate before my phone conference. I’ll stay here to wait while Phil runs errands. Frustrated, we get ready for bed. And I notice the motion-activated yard light is on. It could be the raccoon. Once I looked out and saw a raccoon. The better to see outside, I leave the lights off.

Sudden pain incinerates all other concerns. For the moments of that eruption, all else is consumed in its flame. Whether the backyard light is on or not; what else I need to do before going to bed; cavities and phone conferences and student learning objectives; where our precious package is; regret over missing breakfast tomorrow; the lying, unreliable, life-ruining UPS system; all turn to ash.

I wait for the pain to ebb, to be able to walk again. But that doesn’t happen. Fortunately, I have a one-legged husband who has a knee scooter for the bathroom. He instructs me. With awkward jockeying, I finish getting ready for bed, grasping how difficult it has been for Phil to reach toilet and tub in this narrow room. We could go to emergency, Phil suggests. No way. I need my sleep. Ibuprofen. A pillow under my throbbing toes.

My fantasy that it would be fine by morning dies. I still can’t walk, but the pain settles to a dull ache. What do you call these toes? I ask Phil, as I write an email description of the injury for Christine, my neighbor the doctor. Oscar, Phil says. And this one’s Rosie. No, I retort, Rosie is pinky toe: even I know that. Undeterred, he continues, and this one is Charlie…

Oscar and Rosie-pinky-toe have swollen to bright sausages. A smoky blue bruise covers the top of my swollen foot. I should call Marilyn and tell her the other reason we had to cancel breakfast, the one I didn’t know yet when I talked to her last night.

Like any shock, even this minor one takes time to sink in. I cannot walk—wait: I can’t walk? UPS hasn’t come, so nor will I go to the doctor. I tape the injured toes to the healthy one next to them, take ibuprofen; ice it, keep it elevated. It’ll heal on its own in four to six weeks. What the what? Four weeks? Look at your calendar and see what else you have to cancel, Phil suggests.

I take the scooter to the top of the stairs, ease onto the floor, cling to the balusters, lower myself stair by stair on my butt like Phil did before he got his prosthesis. I hop to the kitchen, stand one-legged, hands on Phil’s walker, and realize I can’t make breakfast. After two days of hopping, my right thigh and hip ache. How did you do this? I ask Phil.

When I Googled broken toes, one site had preventive advice. First on the list: “don’t walk around your house barefoot in the dark.” It was a comfort. Apparently I’m not the only idiot who breaks toes this way.

Past six p.m. on day two of UPS confinement, our package finally arrives. Christine the doctor prescribes a popsicle stick splint so I can start walking. I suggest Haagen-Dazs. Christine observes that Haagen-Dazs sticks are a good width “for medicinal purposes.” Day three I abandon the walker, hobble around on a Haagen-Dazs stick, my brief sojourn in Phil’s shoe already fading. Although I’ll fail, I try to salvage appreciation of his reality. However tenuous, such understandings are essential to our humanity.

Posted in Humor | 7 Comments

Mexico City, Part 2

Roxanna Erdman drives in this crazy city and does it well. She lives nearby and when Agustín Cadena gets to town, she brings him to our hotel—Agustín wearing a bowler hat. We are writers so our gifts amount to book swaps. I give them mine and get Agustín’s latest, Dibujos a lápiz, which I’m translating as Pencil Sketches; Roxanna gives me her charming bestiary, Zorrillo el último. I wonder about translating bestiaries, which are usually alphabetical. Since he’s a skunk, the zorrillo cannot be last in English.

Roxanna and Agustín

Roxanna and Agustín

Sunday morning traffic is light. Roxanna gets us to San Angel in no time, where we see the memorial plaque for the San Patricios, the Irish who fought for Mexico in the Mexican-American War. Agustín shows us where they raised the gallows. Half a block away, Roxanna calls our attention to galletas de iglesia, being toasted outside the church on a griddle. Church biscuits: a heavenly aroma.

To reach Catherine Mayo’s house, Roxanna noses through a maze of narrow lanes designed for donkey carts. Catherine’s referrals have been golden: she put me in touch with everyone I’m translating now. Catherine is American, has lived in Mexico for decades and writes in English. It took Agustín just six months to translate her novel about Maximilian. I can’t imagine how he did that: Mílada Bazant’s biography took me nine.

Catherine and I have both translated Agustín’s stories. “We have enough for a book,” she says. “Let’s work on that.” Collaboration is common amongst translators, and Catherine is as collaborative as they come. She’s a fan of digital publishing, but still thinks print essential. Brandishing the 2007 chapbook with her translation of Agustin’s story Carne Verde, Piel Negra/An Avocado from Michoacán, she exclaims, “It looks brand-new! It won’t disappear. Things you publish online disappear.”

The mangos she serves us for dessert, drizzled with lime, are perfect. Tasting mine, I feel as if I’m floating. “Yes,” she acknowledges, “it is their moment.” Our lunch conversation is lively, we stay longer than planned and reach the Frida Kahlo Museum an hour before it closes, the line to get in still impossibly long. It was like that when I tried in 2002. “That is the same line,” I declare.

Agustín has breakfast with us the next morning, asks for hot water, brings his own Earl Grey tea bag. On Reforma we visit a Leonora Carrington sculpture he wants us to see. He points across the wide boulevard: “That heavily fortified building is the American embassy.” It stands behind a tall blue metal fence, thick hedges, concrete barriers. He grins. “They don’t even fly the flag.”

Cocodriillo, by Leonora Carrington

Cocodrillo, by Leonora Carrington

We walk the Zona Rosa, stop at El Péndulo, a café-bookstore. Phil said later, “I could have stayed for hours. They have an English section. And good coffee.” I bought Ignacio Padilla’s book on the 1985 earthquake there because Mónica Lavín mentioned it in regard to her in-progress novel about the earthquake.

The next evening, Mónica had put her ipod on shuffle and as we arrive vintage Bob Dylan is playing. It ain’t me, babe. Phil and I are immediately drawn to the books, and Mónica gives us a swift tour of her library: American authors here, Latin American there, Mexicans elsewhere, two shelves of her own books. “It’s a little egotistical,” she apologizes. “I’m moving them to my studio.” “Well, before you do, I need a photo,” I say.

Some of Mónica Lavín's books

Some of Mónica Lavín’s books

Jorge Prior arrives, and talk turns to documentaries. Jorge is working on a film about the late 19th century group of artists and writers who admired Manual Acuna, an early modernist poet. “I believe Manual Acuna is the person Laura Méndez de Cuenca had an affair with,” I exclaim. (I translated that biography: you’d think I could remember.) Mónica grabs her phone: yes, that’s right, and the out of wedlock baby is there too. I hope Jorge shows those artists digging up Acuna’s body years later. It’s a deliciously macabre event.

Catherine arrives with the evening rain and a blustery wind. Mónica closes the sliding glass balcony doors, serves a delicious huachinango as her ipod plays Johnny Cash. Later, the rain slackens and when she opens the doors again, fragrant cool air wafts over us.

Mónica Lavín, flanked by two of her translators, C.M. Mayo and yours truly

Mónica Lavín, flanked by two of her translators, C.M. Mayo and yours truly

Mónica and I discuss our proposed collection of stories, and mutter darkly about glacial editor response. I talk about the story I’m currently translating, in which Raymond Carver is mentioned. Where I’m Calling From is on her shelves. The mention is homage, but with its subtle, solitary epiphany, the story itself is a Carver story, I say. She had not thought of that. Creativity is sometimes mysterious, giving the author an intuition that her character would have read Carver. The writer writes, and is not always aware of all she does.

The days spin by and we find ourselves back in America and not braced for it. It is too loud, the RNC has ended and the DNC is in mid-stride. In the Houston airport, half-listening to Bloomberg speak, wearily waiting to start the last leg of our journey, I get a text from Agustín: “I am full of happy memories. You and Phil are encantadores.”


Posted in Translation, Travel | 4 Comments